For more than 40 years, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation played a critical role in the nation's military weapons program, producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. This process generated massive quantities of waste, much of which was buried on-site or, in the case of liquids, discharged directly to the ground, risking contamination of the groundwater that flows into the Columbia River.
- Hanford holds more high-level radioactive waste than all other U.S. sites combined.
- Waste is stored in 177 underground tanks—149 of which are single-shell tanks (SSTs), designed to be used for only 20-25 years. Many of these tanks are some 40 years beyond their design life.
- These SSTs currently hold about 30 million gallons of waste—enough to fill more than 45 Olympic-sized swimming pools or 2,586 large tanker trucks.
- Approximately two-thirds of the SSTs are known or suspected to have leaked into the surrounding soils.
- All of the SSTs have been declared “unfit for use” based on an engineering determination—and under the Washington’s Hazardous Waste Management Act (HWMA), the U.S. Dept. of Energy is required to remove all waste from the SSTs and close the tank system to HWMA standards.
Hanford lacks the capacity to allow for the near-term removal of all waste from the SSTs— as Hanford’s 28 double-shell tanks are nearly at capacity. Even if this wasn’t the case, the HWMA prohibits indefinitely storing hazardous waste.
Because of this— and the high cost of building new double-shell tanks, U.S. Dept. of Energy’s long-held strategy has been to build a Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) to “vitrify” the waste into solid glass. Unfortunately, under this strategy, each delay in constructing and operation the WTP increases the risk of additional leaks from the SSTs.
Hanford cleanup is governed by the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement (TPA), an agreed enforcement order, signed by the Washington State Dept. of Ecology, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Dept. of Energy (Energy), that contains detailed schedules for Energy to clean up the site and bring it into compliance with applicable environmental laws—namely the HWMA.
The Washington Attorney General's Office has historically played a significant role in enforcing the requirements of the TPA and ensuring that the cleanup work continues on schedule and in a manner that protects the environment, public health, and the safety of workers performing this important task.
Compliance efforts to date
From 1989 to 2010, the Tri-Party Agreement captured compliance milestones for constructing the WTP, retrieving waste from the single-shell tanks and completing waste treatment.
• When the WTP construction began in 2001, the TPA required the plant to begin operating in 2011.
• All SST retrieval was to be completed by 2018.
• Tank waste treatment was to be completed by 2028.
Washington v. Chu
In 2008, Washington sued the federal government for missing—or being on track to miss— major TPA milestones for WTP construction, SST retrieval and tank waste treatment.
The suit was settled in 2010 and included:
• A judicially enforceable consent decree, defining new milestones for WTP construction and operation as well as 19 SST retrievals; and
• Amendments to the TPA that define new end dates for SST retrieval and waste treatment.
In November 2011, Energy gave Washington notice that one or more of the milestones was “at risk.”
The Department gave Washington more detail in May 2012, identifying specific technical issues with the WTP and specifying which milestones were at risk.
Former Gov. Chris Gregoire and former Attorney General Rob McKenna sent a letter in August 2012, reminding Energy that the consent decree required the Department to do everything in its power to implement and meet the scheduled milestones. The letter warned the state was considering invoking the Dispute Resolution provision of the consent decree— a step the state must take before seeking relief from the federal court.
In mid-September, the Energy Secretary responded with a commitment to become personally involved in the situation. In January 2013, the Secretary sent a follow-up letter to Gov. Gregoire summarizing his work. He did not identify an end date for this work nor did he share when Energy might propose a new schedule for WTP construction.
Since October 2012, Energy has reported multiple failures— both in single-shell and double-shell tanks— but mostly in the single-shell tanks.
Washington is exploring its legal options to prevent future and ongoing leaks.
AG Ferguson statement on Hanford court order (05/12/15)